Community Engaged Scholars program marks first full year at WSU Vancouver

A WSU Vancouver student connecting wires to test a young child's wind turbine.
WSU Vancouver students helped spark iUrban Teen students’ interest and engagement in STEM fields by demonstrating how wind turbines are used to generate power/electricity. (photo by Praveen Sekhar)

When WSU Vancouver introduced the Community Engaged Scholars program in 2023, Praveen Sekhar, associate professor of electrical engineering, quickly signed up. Last summer, he was among six faculty members who made up WSU Vancouver’s first cohort for the program.

The Community Engaged Scholars program is an intensive professional development opportunity for faculty to learn about incorporating service learning into their classes. Introduced in 2017 on the main campus in Pullman, the program is now available systemwide; WSU Vancouver is the first non-Pullman campus to adopt it. This spring, Sekhar embedded service learning into his electrical and computer engineering 405 course: Professional Issues and Ethics in Electrical Engineering.

“Many folks around campus don’t automatically associate our electrical engineering program with service learning,” said Narek Daniyelyan, assistant vice chancellor for strategic partnerships at WSU Vancouver. “Yet Praveen’s students helped multiple community partners on a variety of projects, including Clark County Food Bank, Green Mountain School District, the MESA program at WSU Vancouver, Educational Opportunities for Children and Families, iUrban Teen and more.”

In all, ECE405 students provided more than 500 hours of community service to partner organizations.

Although some students grumbled at first, Sekhar assured them they would feel rewarded when they saw the value they could provide. He divided his 23 students into eight groups, each of which picked a community partner and a project.

For example, at Green Mountain School District in rural Clark County — which does not have its own STEM program — the group held a STEM awareness day with fourth graders. They explained what STEM is and how electricity works, demonstrated a solar car and several electronic devices, and created a brochure for further learning. WSU Vancouver students had to figure out how to communicate complex concepts in language children would understand. One teacher mused that his life might have been different if he’d been introduced to STEM in grade school.

Another group worked with the Educational Opportunities for Children and Families program to develop tutorials to help train staff on Microsoft Office.

Peter Elmatti, IT manager for the program, praised the result: “A common barrier for early learning professionals is dealing with learning new technology that seems secondary to their actual work. The more I can minimize that barrier for our staff, the more they can focus on the important work that they do. WSU students were able to help each of our teachers by shrinking that barrier.”

One of the most complex projects involved designing systems for tracking and locating items for Clark County Food Bank’s big warehouse to increase employees’ efficiency and productivity. In researching options, students considered the nonprofit’s constraints, such as price and technical support, then presented the pros and cons of three options to supervisors and managers. Once they settle on a system choice, a group from next year’s ECE405 will implement it.

Service learning fits well with Sekhar’s teaching philosophy.

“Many think electrical engineering is a grind. What they don’t understand is that once they go out into the world, there are so many ways they can contribute,” he said.  

Sekhar, who also heads WSU Vancouver’s Nanomaterials-Sensor Laboratory, said his goal for both his teaching and research is to help develop a diverse and civic-minded workforce that can collaborate to solve complex problems. He plans to include service-learning in next year’s ECE405 course, and the Chancellor’s office at WSU Vancouver has invited him to mentor other faculty in the concepts of Community Engaged Scholars.

“Community engaged pedagogies help students engage deeply with unique contexts requiring tailored solutions to community challenges,” said Johanna Phelps, faculty lead for WSU Vancouver’s Community Engaged Scholars program. “The evidence points to the fact that Praveen’s course did just that.”

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